Interview: Built To Spill

interview by gordon downs

Considered one of the elder statesmen of the highly proliferated genre known as “indie rock”, Dough Martsch has been a thriving force in the underground music scene since the early nineties. From his blazing guitar outfit the Treepeople, to his collaborative effort with Calvin Johnson as the Halo Benders, Martsch’s influence on independent rock and roll resonates quite deeply throughout many of today’s contemporary musicians.

He currently holds court with his now permanent band, Built To Spill. Based out of Boise, Idaho, Martsch surrounds himself with his family, friends and nothing else. He creates an environment likened to that of his own personal suburban utopia, where he can write music and create infinitely sprawling guitar solos as easily as the sun rises and sets over Idaho’s pale blue skies. His most recent offering came in the form of a solo album consisting of blues and folk tunes entitled, “Now You Know”.

Coming off their most recent hiatus, I managed to get Doug to answer a few questions about the next record, give a shout out to Clyde Drexler, and found out just exactly how Built To Spill ended up on a major label.

Gordon Downs: The first time I ever heard or saw anything by Built To Spill, was believe it or not, during an episode of “Beavis and Butthead”.
Doug Martsch: Oh yeah! (laughing) That was the video for ‘In The Morning’.

Do you know Mike Judge? Has he ever showed up at one of your shows?
No, not all. I’m a huge fan though of his stuff. I love “King Of The Hill”, and I like “Beavis and Butthead” pretty well too.

Have you guys made any videos since then?
No, uh-huh. We made one more around the same time, right when we signed to Warner Bros. We made a video of ‘Untrustable’, and that one’s an incredible video. Our friend Mike Sheer–it’s all just animation and it’s all really good, kinda creepy, funny. Right when we signed to Warner Bros. was about the time that bands on our level stopped making videos.

What kind of level is that?
Small bands on big labels.

So you consider Built To Spill to be a small band in that sense?
Definitely, we don’t sell that many records.

Are you amazed to still be on Warner Bros.’ roster?
Yeah, actually I am. I’m surprised at how well it all worked out; I mean it was a three record deal and we were done with those and they picked up an option for another one, so, yeah, it’s really nice. We’ve had a few scares with people that we worked with have left the company. Like our A&R guy who was the head of A&R there, he was the reason I signed to the label. We talked to a buncha labels and a couple of months after we had signed to Warner Bros., everyone else that I had talked to was gone from their labels. That’s the way that stuff works, all the A&R people just turn over so fast. The guy who replaced our A&R guy and a few other key people at Warner Bros. have left and they all have been replaced by other really nice, good people. So we’ve been super lucky, we just happen to work with some of the nicest people there I guess.

So you guys got optioned for another album?
Yeah, the one we’ve not yet begun to do (laughing).

Yeah, so what’s up with that?
After we finished our last album I wanted to take a break. So during our break there was another one of those switch-overs at Warner Bros. and we were assigned a new A&R guy. He heard my solo record and wanted Warner Bros. to put it out, which wasn’t really something that anyone had talked about before. I didn’t really want it to happen, and no one else there was interested in it. But then this new A&R guy liked it a lot and he was tight with the chairman or something and got him to put it out. I ended up doing a few acoustic shows, and ended up liking it a bunch and did a whole tour of the country. Now
we’re just getting Built To Spill back together again.

How have practices been going?
We live in different towns so we can only practice when we’re about to go into the studio or on tour. Right now our drummer’s going to school. He’s been going to school since we took our hiatus.

Scott’s back in school?
Back in school, he’s a backer.

How old is Scott anyways?
Scott’s 32. Brett and I are 33, I think Jim’s 40?

Jim Roth, he’s our new guitar player. It’s kinda strange to end up with people your same age. It’s kinda weird the generations get shorter and shorter. I dunno if you ever saw that episode of “Mr. Show” where Bob and Dave are arguing, “We like the Bangles! You like that Bananarama crap! You like Star Wars! We like Empire Strikes back!” Stuff like that. No one my age likes Smashing Pumpkins, but if you talk to someone four or five years younger, they do.


What do you think of Zwan?
Is that Billy Corgan’s new band? They don’t do anything for me.

What blows my mind is that he recruited one of the fellas from Slint, and freakin’ Matt Sweeney from Chavez!?!
Yeah, I know those bands.

You had mentioned your solo outing; I actually went to one of those shows here in Southern California. What’s that device you use on your vocals when you perform live?
I use a space echo, that was what made the whole thing work for me. I’m pretty insecure about my voice.

It gave your live preformance a warm studio feel to it.
Yeah, it kinda doubles it, just a quick delay. That’s how on all the Built To Spill records I double my voice. I think it’s really thin sounding. Doubling it gives it a cool John Lennon effect or something.

Aside from your solo work and Built To Spill, have you been up to anything else?
I have a cover band, and we’re finishing making a record.

What’s the name of that band?
The band’s called Boise Cover Band. I play bass and sing, and I’ve actually been playing a buncha guitars and stuff because I’ve been finishing it up just on my own here at home.

What’s the name of the album?
I dunno if it’s gonna come out or anything, if it does it’ll be called “Unoriginal Artists”.

What’s Caustic Brett up to these days?
I think Brett spends an equal amount of time in Boise, L.A. and Seattle these days. I don’t really know what he’s doing. I never see him when he’s here in town. He had couple of Caustic Resin shows here in town, but I missed them both. They were a couple of weeks ago and I was sick. Caustic Resin has a new record coming out, they recorded it at our guitar player Jim Roth’s place.

Do you think you’ll do anything with Calvin as the Halo Benders again?
I dunno. I’d like to, but there just never seems to be a time to do it. We talked about it a few times, actually a few years ago when we both started listening to the blues, we actually worked on some blues songs together. But we both ended up making solo records, but at one time we were gonna collaborate and make all those things into a Halo Benders blues record. A couple of years ago we went on tour and we were gonna try and do a Built To Spill/Halo Benders tour, but it just didn’t work out.

You’d be into doing double duty every night?
Oh yeah, totally. It’s not that hard, it might’ve been kinda hard on my voice though.

Built To Spill works primarily with Phil Ek when it comes time to record. Will he help produce your next album?
Definitely–I think he’s part of the band when we hit the studio. First of all he’s a great friend; as you get older that’s the only time you really get to see your friends, when you’re working with them. He’s also just a great engineer. We have a lexicon and rapport that’s grown over the years. We really know how to work together, and I trust his musical opinions as well.

Do you go to many shows around Boise?
No. Actually, since I’ve been back I’ve been gone to very few shows.

Is it because of lack of local bands or. . .
There’s stuff going on, I’m just not that interested. I like to. . .I kinda don’t really like going into crowded places. I’d rather watch basketball on T.V. than go to a show.

Really? Who’s your team?
The Blazers.

Oh yeah, Clyde The Glide homie.
I wish we had Clyde The Glide!